Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) are places in Massachusetts that receive special recognition because of the quality, uniqueness and significance of their natural and cultural resources. These areas are identified and nominated at the community level and are reviewed and designated by the state’s Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
What is an ACEC?
An Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) is a place in Massachusetts that receives special recognition because of the quality, uniqueness, and significance of its natural and cultural resources. Such an area is identified and nominated at the community level and is reviewed and designated by the state’s Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) administers the ACEC Program on behalf of the Secretary.
Designation of an ACEC increases environmental oversight by increasing state permitting standards through elevated performance standards and lowering thresholds for review.
The purpose of the Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) Program is to preserve, restore, and enhance critical environmental resources and resource areas of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The goals of the program are to identify and designate these ecological areas, to increase the level of protection for ACECs, and to facilitate and support the stewardship of ACECs.
The ACEC Program was established in 1975 when the Massachusetts Legislature authorized and directed the Secretary of Environmental Affairs to identify and designate areas of critical environmental concern to the Commonwealth and to develop policies for their acquisition, protection, and use. Since that time, 30 ACECs have been designated covering approximately 268,000 acres in 76 communities, from the Berkshires to the North Shore and Cape Cod. The Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) administers the ACEC Program on behalf of the Secretary.
The ACEC Regulations (301 CMR 12.00) describe the procedures for the nomination, review, and designation of ACECs. The ACEC Regulations also direct the agencies of the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (in 2007 renamed Energy and Environmental Affairs, or EOEEA) to take actions, administer programs, and revise regulations in order to preserve, restore, or enhance the natural and cultural resources of ACECs. As a result, DCR has a close working relationship with many state agencies. Together these agencies can provide information on a variety of resource management issues, grants to communities and organizations, and technical assistance for planning, research, and project design and permitting. In particular, DCR coordinates closely with the Office of Coastal Zone Management regarding all aspects of coastal ACECs.
An ACEC nomination is usually prepared by citizens and communities and involves extensive public input and discussion. Public outreach and community meetings help inform citizens about the nomination review process, and identify local and regional goals for resource management of the area. A nomination describes the area’s natural and cultural resources and its ecological relationships; discusses potential benefits of and reasons for designation; identifies goals and objectives for stewardship; describes the process of public outreach and education prior to submitting the nomination; and proposes a potential ACEC boundary to the Secretary for public review.
An ACEC designation recognizes significant ecosystems and is intended to foster appreciation and stewardship of the unique natural and cultural resources in an area. The designation works through the existing state environmental regulatory and review framework. Projects within an ACEC that are subject to state agency jurisdiction or regulation, particularly those that are initiated by an agency, require a state permit, or are funded by a state agency, are reviewed with closer scrutiny to avoid or minimize adverse environmental impacts. Ultimately, the designation provides a framework for citizens, communities, and agencies to work together and ensure the long-term preservation and management of these areas.
It is also important to understand what an ACEC designation does not do. It does not supersede local regulations or zoning, change or affect land ownership, allow public access on private property, or prohibit or stop land development.
Proactive stewardship and collaboration is essential to achieve the purpose and goals of ACEC designation. State agency programs and actions alone cannot successfully preserve and manage these resources and ecosystems. ACEC communities, local citizens, agencies, and organizations can work together to identify problems, develop stewardship goals, collect information about natural resources, design management approaches, monitor resource quality, and conduct public outreach to protect, restore, and enhance the ACEC resources. For stewardship to be effective, a variety of strategies must be considered. These approaches range from education and advocacy to land protection, research, and formal management planning. The variety of available stewardship techniques is often as diverse as the ACECs themselves. Further suggestions are described in the ACEC Stewardship fact sheet.
ACEC Program staff provide information and technical assistance to citizens, communities, and other agencies and organizations; promote and support stewardship activities at the local and regional levels; participate in state regulatory reviews; and review ACEC nominations, amendment proposals, and resource management plans on behalf of the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Other state agencies and nonprofit organizations recognize the special value of ACECs and often collaborate through informal networking as well as through planning committees, natural resource mapping and research, grant programs, land protection projects, and other technical assistance.